Thoughts on Inbound Marketing – Will the Gazelles Stay?

I was able recently to attend a lecture by Brian Halligan, CEO and co-founder of HubSpot. For those unfamiliar with HubSpot, they’re another one of these innovative marketing companies that seem to be all the rage in the business community. I believe there’s good reason for the recent emergence of more innovative marketing, but I’ll touch on that later. First, though, the lecture. I’m not thoroughly educated in the field of marketing, but I really didn’t need to be to enjoy the lecture and get a lot out of it. Early in the lecture, he did, in fact, say that everything the marketing students had learned was irrelevant. TV advertising, cold calls, mass mailing – all useless in the current market. We were in a new era, where people hate being advertised to, and we have to find new ways to market our products. This made me feel way better about my complete lack of marketing experience as a student interested in entrepreneurship in the future, I have to say.

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But what is inbound advertising, exactly? I had been following HubSpot on Twitter for almost a month out of pure intrigue, but the Twitter account didn’t really give me a good idea of what it was. Halligan started with a humorous routine about what your theoretical “huge pile of cash from Sequoia Capital” becomes as founder of a startup as you continue to pay Google for advertising (as one would expect, into the mouth of the furnace that is Google), and continued to absolutely rip on how useless traditional advertising is. He then used the words “content” and “context” frequently as he began to describe how HubSpot was different. The impression I got was that the “context” end of HubSpot and the concept of inbound advertising is what is important, now. He stressed that “following the gazelles to the watering hole” was key, because the gazelles that are the consumer market are simply no longer where they used to be. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and the like appear to be the focus of HubSpot instead of pouring money into Google’s furnace. Imagine that.

Am I cynical for finding this as being rather obvious? Probably, because Halligan realized it first and is making millions as a result. Nobody likes ads on TV. Nobody has the attention span to read ads in the newspaper. People find most ads on Google annoying. You can skip ads on YouTube – so those are useless too. The solution? Go somewhere else. HubSpot and their clients are where the gazelles are. (Aside: Are their clients wise for using HubSpot or foolish for not being able to figure this out on their own? Food for thought.) While moving marketing to where the people are is obviously not all HubSpot has to offer, but it did seem to be the focal point of Halligan’s lecture. The other side of the coin he briefed on, content, also is key to HubSpot’s operation. It’s rather simple – market toward what people enjoy, not what they despise. Back to the dreaded example of the TV ad – people hate them. Don’t do what people hate and expect them to want whatever you’re trying to sell. The occasion that a commercial is truly brilliant and goes viral is really the only time besides the Super Bowl that the brand being advertised really sticks in my head. Otherwise it’s all white noise while I’m just angrily waiting for the next part of the new Breaking Bad episode. Who watches TV live anymore anyway? It’s migrated heavily to Netflix, and even illegal websites such as Project Free TV. Live sporting events and news are really becoming the only rational reasons to turn on your television these days.

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Doesn’t this just look antiquated? I’m not buying from that Chevy dealer…

People like Twitter. People like Facebook. Advertise there. Be one of those “cool” CEOs with millions of Twitter followers – people like and enjoy Twitter at the moment. What else is there to say?

Wait a minute.

Their content and context model for explanation sound very similar. Both just say go to Instagram or Pinterest or whatever the website du jour is. It really seems to me that inbound advertising is just moving on to advertising on the next big medium. When print and radio were no longer in style, marketers moved on to TV. Now social networking is where the gazelles are. While that’s all well and good that HubSpot recognized this new watering hole, can we honestly call this innovation in marketing? My personal answer to this question is, well, sort of. It’s commendable that HubSpot saw that companies needed help making the quantum leap to newer forms of advertising – to expand their reach to wherever the market currently “is.” Will they continue to adapt when we as a society move from Facebook to, well, whatever the hell we move on to? HubSpot has to answer that question.

As of now I’m not sold on calling inbound marketing true innovation. They realized people don’t like marketing method A, so they moved on to marketing method B. Peter Thiel spoke in his Stanford lectures about the difference between 1 to n innovation, sort of a natural progression after the original innovation, and 0 to 1 innovation, the aforementioned original, groundbreaking innovation. For me, this clearly falls in the former category. This is part of a natural progression. The old-fashioned CEOs that Halligan bashed for their traditional marketing methods will either adapt or suffer the consequences, losing out to those companies that do adapt. It’s Darwinism at work, if we’re being cliché. (My roommate recently asserted that anybody that describes something as Darwinian or Darwinism really doesn’t know the first thing about Darwin or the theory of evolution… I’ll let my currently nonexistent readers be the judge on this one.)

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Apologies to this man (maybe?)

So do I like HubSpot? Not really. If I’m building a company, I’d really like to think I can establish a social media presence on my own – or find someone that can without outsourcing. I sincerely hope those that use HubSpot benefit from it, but I hope more that they have exhausted their other options in terms of marketing. Startups in particular should avoid HubSpot even if it’s just because most investors see outsourcing as a red flag. HubSpot is brilliant for realizing that there will exist companies that can’t adapt, but therein lies the problem. The companies that use HubSpot can’t keep up with the gazelles. HubSpot is showing these companies where the current watering hole is. However, there’s no replacement for the marketing instinct to find the next watering hole on your own. If you’re outsourcing your marketing because you can’t figure out how to have a real social media presence, how can you adapt your marketing in the future? The gazelles will not stay. They never have. Say what you want about the rate technology is progressing, but TV ads lost traction fast, if you ask me. HubSpot will be an effective company until the next major move by the gazelles. Then HubSpot has to adapt along with marketing departments worldwide. I think it’ll be really interesting, actually, to see if HubSpot is self-aware enough to avoid having Halligan become one of those old-fashioned CEOs he pokes fun at.

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